FBI tries to deport Muslim man for refusing to be an informant

After Imam Foad Farahi declined to become a federal informant, the government tried to destroy him.

Farahi says the ICE agents gave him an ultimatum: Drop the asylum case and leave the United States voluntarily, or be charged as a terrorist. He was afraid.

Indeed, luck wasn't on Farahi's side when drawing a judge for his asylum claim. Appointed to the immigration court in October 2006 by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Holliday was a Louisiana Republican who had quickly earned a reputation for being tough on immigrants in Florida. In one case, he declined to hear arguments from an Ecuadorian couple who alleged they were targeted for deportation because their daughter, Miami Dade College student Gabby Pacheco, was a well-known activist for immigration reform. "People who live in glass houses should not throw stones," Holliday wrote. (The judge resigned this past January, after the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General found Bush administration officials had illegally considered political affiliation when selecting judicial candidates for immigration court.)

So Farahi told Judge Holliday he would voluntarily leave the country within 30 days. Although Farahi's Iranian passport was expired — a bureaucratic problem that should have given him more time to consider the government's threat — Judge Holliday granted the order of voluntary departure.

Imam Foad Farahi says he turned down the FBI's invitation to be an informant.
C. Stiles
Imam Foad Farahi says he turned down the FBI's invitation to be an informant.
Now the local Muslim leader and his attorney, Ira Kurzban (shown), are fighting the government's efforts to deport him to Iran.
C. Stiles
Now the local Muslim leader and his attorney, Ira Kurzban (shown), are fighting the government's efforts to deport him to Iran.

Soon, Farahi realized the government's claim that it would prosecute him as a terrorist was a bluff — nothing more than leverage to coerce him into becoming an informant. To this day, the government has not shared with Farahi or his attorney any information about this professed evidence, and he has not been charged with a crime.

"If they have something on Foad, they should make it public. They haven't done that," says Sunshine, the Barry University theology professor. "They are intimidating and bullying, and I resent that type of behavior being paid for by my tax dollars."

Farahi's assertion that the government is trying to coerce him to become an informant cannot be verified independently because the FBI won't comment on his case. "It is a matter of policy that we do not confirm or deny who we have asked to be a source," says Miami FBI Special Agent Judy Orihuela. But similar claims from other would-be informants seem to support Farahi's assertion.

In November 2005, for example, immigration officials questioned Yassine Ouassif, a 24-year-old Moroccan with a green card, as he crossed into New York from Canada. The officials confiscated his green card and instructed him to meet an FBI agent in Oakland, California. The bureau's offer: Become an informant or be deported. Ouassif refused to spy and won his deportation case with the help of National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement, a nonprofit that advocates for civil rights on behalf of Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia.

The government employed a similarly tough tactic against Tarek Mehanna, a 26-year-old U.S. citizen living in Sudbury, Massachusetts. After FBI agents failed to persuade Mehanna to spy, the government charged him with making a false statement. Prosecutors allege Mehanna told FBI agents a suspect was in Egypt when he knew that person was in Somalia. Mehanna is awaiting trial, and his attorney has alleged the prosecution is a form of revenge for Mehanna's unwillingness to be an informant.

Among more recent cases is that of Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan. Charged with making a false statement to obtain citizenship, he alleged in a February detention hearing in Orange County, California, that he was arrested and indicted for refusing to be an informant.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) suspects there are hundreds of similar cases in which the government has used deportation or criminal charges to force cooperation from informants. Most of these cases will never be made public. What's more, the FBI is now working under guidelines, approved in December 2008 by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey, that allow agents to consider religion and ethnic background when launching undercover investigations. Today, many Muslims in the United States simply assume informants are working inside their mosques.

"This is becoming increasingly common," says Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR's national communications director. "Law enforcement authorities seek to use some vulnerability of the individual, whether it be business, immigration, or personal, to try to gain some sort of informant status.

"The issue is law enforcement's basic understanding of the community. Is it one that law enforcement needs to have blanket suspicion toward or is it... well integrated into our multi-faith nation and wants to preserve public safety as well as civil liberties?"

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Ira Kurzban's law office in Miami is a mile from the alfresco restaurants of Coconut Grove. On a hot day in late August, Kurzban wears a white guayabera and shows no concern for the disheveled gray hairs on the sides of his balding head.

He leans forward at his desk, having been asked a question about Farahi. "He's an imam in his mosque," Kurzban says as he throws his hands in the air in a sort of protest. "He's basically, you know, the rabbi."

Kurzban has become a well-known advocate for immigrants' rights, having argued more immigration-related cases before the U.S. Supreme Court than any of his peers. He is also on the board of directors of Immigrants' List, the first political action committee in Washington, D.C., established to support candidates who endorse immigration reform.

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